Sunday, February 18, 2018

Pyrrhon - What Passes For Survival

It all boils down to melody, chaos, and riffs. These simple elements are what make Pyrrhon’s “What Passes for Survival” an excellent album, along with the fact that it puts on a clinic on song pacing in death metal. It’s a massively heavy, intricate, and even incredibly catchy release. The band’s overall approach is adventurous and jarring in the same vein as technical death metal bands like Gorguts. Where this album succeeds compared to a release like “Colored Sands” though is that there is a nearly constant barrage of melodically forceful moments that you won’t forget after listening to the album.

Too many “technical” bands act like guitar frets should be chosen by a random number generator and they drop any concern for writing effective music. Pyrrhon though has such incredibly tight musicianship that you know they sit and practice just as much as any other band. Thankfully they lack the compulsion to try and pass off their latest sweep picking or blasting routines as songs. Instead, we have dazzling displays of wonky bass, inventive drumming, and punchy riffs. Even something as seemingly routine as the typical “brutal”beat/fill blast pattern is eschewed for a dynamic approach that simultaneously smooths out what would otherwise be jarring transitions.

It doesn’t take long before it becomes obvious that Doug Moore’s vocal performance on this album is stellar, both in it’s creative variety and powerful delivery. Just taking “Goat Mockery Ritual” as an example, he uses his standard harsh thrashy-death metal vocal approach, abyssic deep gutturals, massive drawn out howls, and straight up shouting. Without any exaggeration you can say that he has the range of two vocalists, and the closing section to “The Happy Victim’s Creed” basically sounds like two singers with its rapid trade-off between his two primary vocal styles.

It’s also important to credit Moore’s lyrics. As someone who very rarely cares about lyrics and listens to black metal more than anything else, it was hugely amusing and refreshing how “Goat Mockery Ritual” dressed down the genre’s bullshit esoterica and hypocrisy. Throughout the album the lyrics have a real genuine sense to them, and have a blatant self-awareness “You know you’re gonna keep on reading, This shit, lightweight and stripped of the meaning.” What a way to break the fourth wall without devolving into campy nonsense.

The album has some clear pacing flaws, but they really are not damning. Take for example how “Tennessee” is initially a great moment in the album, but goes on far too long and actually ends up a a bit of an energy drain. This isn’t because of the slow tempo, but rather the meandering energy flow. The song’s nearly eight minutes make it feel like a highly polished jam session rather than a planned out song. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good song, but is a clear example of a problem the band has.

Overall the band dragging a bit is due to a tendency to use some structural throat clearing sections. Other examples include how the 8-10 minutes worth of ideas on “Empty Tenement Spirit” are stretched on for 12 minutes. More representative of the problem is the opening of “The Unraveling: Free At Last,” which is mostly a directionless sprinkle of the kind of pick scraping and general dicking around bands do at the very end of playing a set. Again, its important to keep in mind that these parts of the album are still pretty damn good. They just don’t quite fit in with the exceptional work elsewhere and by the end of the album you are left with the distinct feeling that it isn’t quite as good as it started off.

“What Passes for Survival” is still an incredibly strong release, despite moments where the band lets the pendulum swing too far towards relaxed songwriting. There is even no questioning the strength of the technical band’s use of simple pounding riffs like the moment around 1:15 on “Goat Mockery Ritual.” Then, on the other hand you have the Gorguts-type riffs like rhythmically dense bass and guitar work on “Trash Talk Landfill” starting at around 2:05; or the brilliant drumming in the later half of “The Unraveling: Hegemony of Grasping Fears,” which has a similar Gorguts feel. The examples could go on and on but can be summed up as exclamation marks where other bands use commas.

Pyrron has every last tool they need to dominate the technical death metal genre, they just need to refine their pacing a tad to get there.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

An Empirical Look at 2017's Top Metal Releases

Contaminated Tones has gathered up a bunch of data on what people generally think the best albums are in their end of year lists. This is the 2017 edition of what we did for 2016, 2015, and 2014. While a number of other websites are also now aggregating data from lists, we don't see that as any reason to stop.

These top 16 bands showed up on around 30% of the top ten list spots available. This level of dominance/concentrated popularity is roughly comparable to 2015 (where popular releases came from Ghost, Deafheaven, Iron Maiden, Tribulation, Mgla, and High on Fire). The top six bands showed up in 16% of the available spots, which was identical to how concentrated the most popular six bands were in 2015. For the four years Contaminated Tones has been collecting data, only one other band has dominated to the same degree as Power Trip's extremely popular release Nightmare Logic, and that was Behemoth's The Satanist in 2014 (which also showed up on 37.5% of available spots).

Here are the top 2017 releases in list format:

Power Trip - Nightmare Logic
Bell Witch - Mirror Reaper
Pallbearer - Heartless
Converge - The Dusk in Us
Enslaved - E
Immolation - Atonement
Code Orange - Forever
Mastodon - Emperor of Sand
Spectral Voice - Eroded Corridors of Unbeing
Vulture - The Guillotine
Elder - Reflections of a Floating World
The Ruins of Beverast - Exuvia
Spectral Voice - Eroded Corridors of Unbeing
Vulture - The Guillotine
Elder - Reflections of a Floating World
The Ruins of Beverast - Exuvia
Cannibal Corpse - Red Before Black
Dying Fetus - Wrong One to Fuck With
Nokturnal Mortum - Verity
Godflesh - Post Self

The rate that hybrid/mixed genres showed up on lists was also similar to 2015, and this year follows the trend of the last four years where death metal and black metal were most popular after mixed genres. Other sub-genres again fell below bands that were not metal, which again was also similar to 2015. This year, around 11% of the non-metal releases were due to the popularity of Converge's The Dusk In Us. Doom metal's 19.5% rate was up from 2016 (11.3%) and 2015 (12.34%), and close to its 20% showing in 2014. For the third year in a row, black metal was the most dominant sub-genre.

For 2017, the most interesting result from the data was the relative absence of one of metal's most historically powerful labels: Century Media. In 2014 and 2015, Century Media was the second most dominant label for our data, and in 2016 the company was the 4th most dominant. In 2017 however, Century Media fell behind 18 other labels and tied with another 13 that had three spots in the data set. Nuclear Blast, in contrast, had around 10.25% of the spots available, which ties with the other most dominant label we have historically, which was also Nuclear Blast, but in 2014. Unlike in past years, no other label came close to Nuclear Blast's dominance on end of year lists. The next closest label was Southern Lord Recordings at 4.25%, which historically is closer to the performance of a 4th place label than the second most dominant. This is an important point to understand, because from the label perspective this was a very competitive year and had a lower Herfindahl-Hirschman index than 2014-2016 (indicating a more competitive market for critically acclaimed albums).

  •  Information on genres, whether a band was metal or not, and label data were pulled from the Metal Archives.
  • No bands were excluded for not being metal. If a list included a band, we included it. Otherwise we may as well just be posting our own lists.
  • Only the top 10 from any list were included. This was done to have some continuity across websites in terms of the weight of their data. We excluded sites with lists of less than 10; this way each website is on equal footing.
  • Since different websites can have in-house tastes, websites with multiple lists were selected only once, and at random. This approach is different from a number of list-of-lists that showed up for this year. Doing otherwise turns the data into an aggregated poll, which is interesting but not what were looking at here.
  • Other than looking at only the top 10, rankings were not considered or averaged. Rankings like these are what is known as ordinal data and typically cannot be averaged in a meaningful way.
  • As a quick example, suppose List 1’s author thinks we had a weak year and would rate their #9 album at 73/100 and their #2 spot only 75/100. We can’t meaningfully compare this with List 2’s author rating their #9 album a 80/100 and their #2 100/100 because we have only rankings, and not ratings.
  • No individual website’s list is reproduced here, neither is the entire data-set.
  • Label data was gathered only for metal bands. It’s also important to keep in mind that not every label releases music every year.
  • Label data shouldn't be viewed as relating to sales or a label's financial strength.
  • The list of websites accessed is in the spoiler tag below.
Websites Accessed:

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Anholt - Karma Evangelica

Imagine cold spacey black metal with fuzzy guitars playing entrancing melodies over programmed industrial drum beats. If you are thinking “hey, that sounds a lot like Blut Aus Nord,” then you have a great starting point for Anholt’s sound. That said, “Karma Evangelica” is far from a rehash, but is still on par with BAN’s quality, i.e. incredible. One interesting flair that sets the band apart is the incorporation of Russian Orthodox church samples, a helpful comparison would be to Batushka’s release that came out a year after this one. The Orthodox theme also obviously meshes well with the band’s anti-religious cover art and song titles.

While the drum samples are far from top notch, and some of the percussion’s mixing gets clippy, the composition decisions with the beats are absolutely fantastic. This is critical because Anholt tends to just groove on a melody or a particular mood for a while, but the drums make the repetition immersive rather than boring. Naturally, this approach will appeal more to fans atmospheric black metal than to those who need something more riff oriented. Also it is important to note that the album’s 50 minutes are divided across fourteen songs; so the pacing is crisp and energetic even when the tempo is mid-paced.

Apart from the hypnotic melodies, the best part of this album is the sense of depth it has. All of the non-standard metal elements like synthesizers and effects that you would expect to be at the forefront of industrial tinged black metal are artfully subtle. It’s a perfect example of a less is more approach. It’s like standing in an abandoned Russian cathedral in the dead of winter. Other than the craftily placed interludes, the album’s atmosphere always feels just out of reach in the mix, which makes you want to immerse yourself deeper into the music to absorb every last harmonic nuance. Despite a somewhat digital and crisp production approach the instruments, other than the drums, are satisfyingly thick.

The riffs often center around simple melodies drawn out over somewhat long tremolo picked progressions. A song like “Procreations of Echidna” wouldn’t have been at all out of place on BAN’s “The Works Which Transform God,” but the album as a whole hovers a fair bit closer to atmospheric black metal than it does to BAN’s more experimental releases. A nice example of this is how around a minute and a half into “God below” where the focus shifts from one of the more atmospheric slow paced melodies over to a two note theme that seductively blooms into a series of slow trills. Despite being normal in terms of the album’s quality, it’s an amazing moment that illustrates how the solo-project transforms a straightforward idea into something with real panache.

“Karma Evangelica” has an incredibly consistent quality throughout the album. Nothing drags. On the other hand, it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t a riffy or thrashy release, so there aren’t a huge amount of moments, crescendos, or musical climaxes that stand out particularly as highlights - it’s just really good in an overall sense. It’s worth pointing out what for me is the most attention grabbing exception, “Terra implet ingluviem meo.” This song’s pulsing even double bass drum pounds along while melodies are stacked onto another and a few bell strikes are thrown in for good measure as the song builds up to a stark and sudden stop. I mention this because even when straying slightly from the album’s successful formula, the music is unquestionably engrossing. This release is absolutely excellent.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Signatura Rerum - The Legend I

It's apparent from the first moments of The Legend I, that Signatura Rerum are not content with idly strumming strings and blasting along. The Legend I, which started it's crafting prior to their excellent 2013 debut, In Sfarsit, has all the captivating elements which makes Romanian Black Metal so rewarding to explore. The right amount of local flavor is present to be determinedly from a somewhat localized scene but there is also a complexity to much of what is pumped through Signatura's veins on this album revealing more wide-reaching influences. Think Negura Bunget and Emperor sitting next to the fireplace together looking at family photos. More modern hues like Opeth and Agalloch come through occasionally. Much like the prior record there is a sense of maturity on display that tingles and tugs on the tripwires which warn of potential and sets off alarms in the nerve-center. It's not often that a band can stand out among the other similar bands of it's genre but Signatura Rerum are coming close. To achieve this lofty perch requires some form of neurological connection to the material and the feelings it creates. Signatura Rerum craft music that is easy to tap into on a deeper level.

The Legend I is the first in a trilogy of albums revolving around a mythological universe created by the band. This is not unheard of in the black metal realm and it is often not done well. Signatura Rerum offer their universe on a kebab, skewering the characters through the heart instead of allowing the guest to taste and decide. It's my least favorite aspect of the record, especially because the lyrical matter reads a lot like Game of Thrones spoilers. I'd like to see Signature Rerum focus less on the settings and more the themes which these narrative threads contain, as they will be continued on the remaining albums in the trilogy. In this way, the courses are offered on platters to be admired and savored. "Rise and Fall" focuses on the topic of revenge, "Legion and Order" seemingly explores a romanticized death among imagery of winter, and "Sand and Wine" intimates a loss of family, pride, and name. Up front, the band plays with the juxtaposition in each of the titles, but the lyrical content needs a little extra love to shine fully.

Musically, the patient attention to building tension and mood was a major highlight for me. Once again, Negura Bunget's influence is notable in the inclusion of folk melodies and instrumentation details such as flutes in "Rise and Fall Pt. 2" or xylophone percussive notes in "Sand and Wine Pt. 1". The truth behind Signatura Rerum's evocative music is the soundtrack-quality narrative feel of the symphonic elements nodding to Emperor, Borknagar, or Dissection. Whether it's the keyboards leaving their mark on the overall symphonic quality, or details like the xylophones, throughout the record Signatura Rerum use a swath of tools to add variety and story to the music. The two tracks from the "Sand and Wine" chapter have a definite different rhythmic style all their own, at times progressive, jazzy, and technical, which adds a lot of character and defines them as unique among the album. This ability to give the three separate segments distinctive flair is incredibly impressive.

Signatura Rerum have a lot to be proud of with this record, both from the complexity attempted and outcome achieved. There is enough uniqueness to separate Legend I from a lot of other music out there and for this alone the endeavor would be worthy of some admiration; being successful in this aim is worthy of commendation beyond. It's not a record to play in the background, giving much more with attention and adoration offered; this nature is easily dispiriting to once-and-done listens. I imagine a soundtrack before me to something vast and grand so hopefully on the future expansions to this, we get a story and characters that are every bit as vast and touching.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Darksworn - Rogue

Darksworn's style of metal is firmly rooted in the Gothernburg spirit of bands such as Dark Tranquility with heavy emphasis on melodic riffs using synthesizer and keyboard supporting melodies yet supplanted by the common metal-core elements which inevitably seem to work their way into projects of this style. Rhythmically, riffs are more in this vein and the movement and transitions feel much more similar to the parasitic bastardization of the great Swedish style that prospered stateside in the early - mid 00's. Rogue is the second album under the Darksworn heading by sole force Alan Blaisdell or "Adam Darksworn" as he uses in Darksworn. Perhaps the switch from Alan to Adam for whatever reason made sense to him but for me, I don't see any reasonable excuse to change stage monikers from a regular name to a similarly regular name, especially for this genre.

Regardless, Adam handles all instrumentation on the record. It's very obvious where his strengths lie. He's a fairly competent guitarist but the material lacks the subtle flourishes which different members bring. This is very noticeable in the interplay between the guitars and bass playing on the album . Across the record, the bass never veers into anything beyond following the rhythm guitar. It's not used for any composition or arrangement effect at all. The drums are tough for me listen to and judge. Apparently he plays the drums but he might as well have programmed them. The sound replacement software he's using just doesn't sound natural in any way and if he's snapping to grid in post it just further mechanizes them. Vocally a monotonous low death metal growl grumbles across the entire recording, burping out lyrics about a planet coming to destroy the earth.

"Slow Death By Poison" stands out to me against a lot of the other material, with attempted Necrophagist flourishes and much heavier overall sound compared to the other tracks. The song's X-files-esque keyboard and guitar combo is a highlight on the album for me, but it's a rough transition into the body of the track. "Inferior" shows a capable ear for writing memorable segments. Early on the track leads into a catchy bridge where Cynic styled vocal modifications and effects are layered behind everything at times. Of the two instrumentals, "Lost" and "Through Defeat," the former is much more mature, shifting nicely through a singular vibe while the later is a mishmash of riffs. "Lost" also gives the impression that the electronic and synth elements have a purposeful place. It still sounds cheap, but it's not as bad as what we're given elsewhere for this reason alone.

The keyboards across the album are easily the most conflicting component of this entire effort. The quality of the effects is just not up to par for a professional sounding recording. It's more like the soundtrack to a Nintendo game than an effort at crafting a metal album. Listening to "Through Defeat" represents the entirety of their usage across the album. Instead of say, using the bass to add the melodies which the keys provide - in a way akin to Carcariass on Killing Process - we're giving childish sounding keyboards. But at times, they also add an otherworldly nostalgia which could be associated with 80's and 90's sci-fi and video games. Perhaps this was the goal but it's done in ways in which don't leave me interested in revisiting the material.

I feel that Adam is in his formative stages as a composer and musician and without hearing the other material he put out, it's tough to say where exactly he's heading. I empathize with his usage of electronic programs to round out compositions, as I've used numerous programs myself to write and compose. It's easy to rely on them for completing a project but it truly comes at a cost of an album's perception. I'd like to see more of where Adam takes this project, but he needs to either upgrade to software which provides a more professional result or choose to use guitar effects to mimic some of the elements he uses the keyboards and synthesizers for before having his material taken seriously. I just need to get more emotion and feel from the recording which is tough on such a mechanical recording. Rogue has some ideas that can be expanded on but the execution needs to be a better quality to grab the ears of fans who simply have too many options to listen to.

p.s. Artists, don't prove 18MB image files for your cover art... what a pain in the ass for those of us with shitty old computers.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Mortum - Eheieh Chaos

Mortum were one of those bands that seemingly inaugurated this decade's black metal scene in New Jersey with their widely distributed first demo in 2010 and album in 2011. Both formative efforts were still, for the time, a step above in refinement. Other than Immolith, Mortum somewhat solidified the upper tier of underground black metal at the time with established acts like Krieg and Abazagorath sitting on their thrones. Haethen were fairly popular south in the Philadelphia region but never really seemed to entice further north in the state. I still feel they were on a different level altogether on both a local and national level. I digress. What was noticeable on Beyond Which Darkness Holds Secret and Rites of Depopulation was a gift for melodic movement. Six years later, that penchant is still strong, and a decisive turn away from the common harsh and abrasive sound I associate with the Northeast places them in a smaller and unique niche of bands who have decided to fully embrace the Eastern European sound of bands like Graveland, Arkona, Hate Forest/Drudkh, and Astrofaes.

First listens of the album prioritize my ears directly to the guitar melodies which carry the brunt of the power on the album. The lack of bass in the mix was initially noticeable until my ears acclimated, after which I was able to hone in on them. They could have been more pronounced and defined. The guitars, tonally I consider "politely raw," with a softer hazy element that smooths out an underlying sandiness and rigid texture. The guitars aren't merely the main melodic element but the only melodic element with the bass so under represented in the mix. This stripped down arrangement puts all focus on the emotions in the melodies and performance of the vocals and drums. Drums drive the album forward but do little to stand out, taking a utilitarian role opposed to an artistic role on the album. Ominous' vocals are in the higher black metal range and adequately add the necessary narrative layer to the mix but also don't particularly add much character.

The pacing presents an album with all intentions to be epic and grand with a solemn chanted genesis leading into the remainder of the first track, "Scourge of Suffering". The opening and "As Cold Winds Blow Amidst Winter Dust" proudly escalate through a bevy of standard black metal tremolo strummed riffs. "Occult Redemption" is darker, moodier, and more elemental. After these tracks we get highlights in the powerful and enchanting "An Elegiac Hymn To Death" and the immediacy of "Shadows of a Forgotten Past." They form a perimeter around the throwback "Black Sickle" (see next paragraph). Closing is "Pitch Black Waters," which fades into the common culminating tendency to have the introduction and epitaph mirror each other.

"Black Sickle" is likely to obtain it's own admirers as the album's catchiest and most nostalgic sounding track, but I'm not as big a fan of it as I am some of the more simplified tracks on the record. Immediately we are transplanted from Mortum's own grey-scale world of pride, reverence, and solitude into the more frantic escapism of Drudkh's Forgotten Legends. The track is too close in essence to something which Eheieh Chaos draws from instead of the wells and springs of influence which the rest of the album drowns in. "An Elegiac Hymn To Death" does this much better, drawing out seven minutes of smartly progressing chords in a tense melody that is sturdy enough to merit the risk of repetition and still draws comparisons to the Kharkiv scene.

Mortum's faults here are slight, and have to do with the lack of bass and some monotony with the drumming. These aspects might prevent listeners from appreciating the emotion and imagery which the entirety presents. The back of the case states that the album was recorded "in various locations" but I wasn't able to fully discern any major tonal differences so likely the drums and guitars were recorded somewhere separately for logistic reasons. The liner notes in the case present some heady poetic lyrics which I would have cared to see more of in the layout for a more complete experience. This is very traditional black metal for dark solitary nights, even if it is common fare in many respects.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Morgirion - Infinite Retribution Upon Paradise

Morgirion's Infinite Retribution Upon Paradise slowly reveals endless layers of Black Metal influence from numerous scenes. The brunt of the material is chaotic in a distinctively American manner, but there is also an Eastern European sensibility to the pacing as well as a Swedish influence when it comes to the atmospheric elements that have been worked spectacularly into the fabric. Essentially, Morgirion take the style they impressed me with on their self titled EP and progress it maturely into a more captivating whole. It's quite a 'whole' as well. At a full one hour of nearly continuous milk-curdling Black Metal replete with wailing tormented vocals, storming drums, and syrupy atmospheres, Infinite Retribution Upon Paradise is a prime example of the opposite end of what we are seeing black metal morphing into elsewhere.

A key element for me throughout the album is Connor Dooley's keyboards which can often be found gliding behind Gerry Baldini's scathing guitar performance. While opening track "Purification Through Fire" represents the tracks composed of endless feasting and fury, the tracks which truly stand out are those in which Morgirion incorporates this straight-forward approach with that of the keys to enforce dynamic and melodic elements. "An Ode To Fallen Cowards" is a good example of this usage, as the keys break the song in half while allowing the drums to continue blasting into oblivion. Keys play a huge role on the back-half of the album with prominence in "Exiled From The Light" where they bookend the nine-minute opus and in "Pyroclastic Warfare" where they enforce the track's breakdown into more melodic territory. In "Inception Revoked," the longest track here at thirteen minutes, the keys offer the repetition to induce the desired trance-like state that is desired, while Matt Jambard explores his drum set like a seasoned jazz musician and then towards the end smoothing out the album's best moments.

Aside from keys, Connor's vocals are notable for their natural dryness across the album, tearing whatever esophageal lining he has in an extremely violent vocal performance. The dryness is tempered by heavy reverb and echo which draw out his tormented screeches into a riveting and wince-inducing performance. I haven't decided if the vocals are too much; do they harm the mix and stifle the rest of the instruments when they're present or are they just perfect, causing the skin to crawl at all the right moments? Either way, the performance is masterful and enter my textbook on how to deliver. The vocals, and their trailing effects, are spacey and cosmic gelling nicely with the keys which purvey a similar vision while the guitars and drums are upfront and aggressive; leaving a worldly mentality.

I wish there was a little more rhythmic variety but overall this is black metal for black metal's sake and for the developed black metal listener. The harshness on offer requires seasoned ears to navigate through a challenging release both in terms of content and length. The production has clarity but is quite harsh and bristling as well. As a reward for experiencing the full effects of Morigrion's effort, we are gifted with the last three minutes of "Inception Revoked" which highlight everything this album does so well. A transition based on a recorded sampling builds into a driving, melodic, and mid-paced movement with keys providing a psychedelic twinge beneath Connor's lowest-toned vocals. It's the slowest overall portion of Infinite Retribution Upon Paradise, yet it is every bit as intense and mesmerizing as the rest of this large caliber release.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Diablo Swing Orchestra - Pacifisticuffs (...and Further Thoughts)

As much as this is a review of Diablo Swing Orchestra's new album, Pacifisticuffs, it also expresses my thoughts on several other areas from the perspective of a reviewer and critic. It's not every day that I approve a rash of comments on Contaminated Tones in about three hours time which, for lack of a better description, wish death and malice upon my reviewer (odd coming from fans of a band with an album called Pacifisticuffs in which the lyrical content is vaguely passive-aggressive). This did cause my senses to perk up and my intuition to tell me that somewhere in the nether-realms of the web, a storm was stirring and we were getting the flood-waters.

A quick aside to add context: two years ago Apteronotus - who I have always felt to be a more capable writer and reviewer than myself - wrote a review for Diablo Swing Orchestra's Pandora's PiƱata. I would not categorize his ultimate judgement as positive. Diablo Swing Orchestra, (DSO - according to their fans; I refuse to use the abbreviation because I'll start confusing myself with Deathspell Omega) in an effort to drum up some Facebook activity had been looking for bad reviews for their new album, the obnoxiously titled Pacifisticuffs, to post. They selected Apteronotus's review, even though it was two years old and on a previous album they weren't attempting to promote. The response was singular:

"Lame review."
"Glad you were in another car accident."
"Asshole OMG."
"You must be fun at parties."

There were a host of other comments similarly full of good cheer (I'm in the Christmas spirit I guess) on their Facebook post. Importantly, the interesting comments revolved around the concept that the review was not accurate or objective. At least these assessments raise concerns that could be proven or disproved. For instance, a common retort mirrored this comment: "I mean seriously, operatic vocals & Evanescence?? Where the hell did you get that, moron!" Perhaps the impression that Annlouise's vocals were operatic came from the fact that they were in fact influenced by her opera background and that throughout the record, though other styles do appear, there are a large swath of instances that show this influence. In an interview in 2006 with Metal Symphony (one of the few interviews I found that talked about vocal style specifically at any point), her style was confirmed by the Diablo Swing Orchestra member them self: "We think that it's probably mostly due to the fact that the bands you've mentioned (plus many others) combine distorted guitars with female vocals, some in various sorts of opera-style." Annlouise left Diablo Swing Orchestra to continue her opera career. Since there is no significant difference in citing Evanescence versus Lacuna Coil, Nightwish, Etc, and listening to the record, objectively, the assessment is accurate (See "Aurora" for a prime example).

Equally objective would be the description of current vocalist Kristin Evegard's vocals as pop influenced on new album, Pacifisticuffs. They are not far in style from Gwen Stefani's or Pink. There is a power in her voice which places Kristin's vocals leagues above your run-of-the-mill pop singer and is, for me, one of the most pleasing aspects to the record. To my ears, her vocals are stronger than Stefani's but not quite as powerful as Pink's. The breathy and wispy character is notable in tracks like "Lady Clandestine Chainbreaker." Comparing Kristin's vocals to rock vocalists or metal vocalists such as Pat Benetar, Doro Pesch, or Leather Leone, it is discernible that the appropriate grit, grime, and grimace is missing to qualify Evegard as being a metal or hard rock vocalist stylistically. This is extendable to the R&B arena as well. Consider a vocalist such as Tracy Nelson or Aretha Franklin. This extends also to the male vocalists on the album whose vocals sound classically trained and too smooth and friendly to fall into the metal realm themselves. The vocal capabilities of all involved here are impressive from a technical standpoint.

Regardless, I generally can't stand the vocals on this record. They are plastered everywhere, over every section in which I felt the music should be the main focus. In this way, Pacifisticuffs felt more grating to my ears than Pandora's Pinata which at least allowed the musical components to eek out a meager existence in this bleak landscape where bongos and clarinets tower over the guitars and Latin beats are used to landscape this toy-land world. "Knucklehugs (Arm Yourself With Love)" is a perfect example of this failure to allow the music beneath to lead the intensity As the vocals are gang-chanted spurts of borderline hippie drivel lyrical matter, I can't imagine the general metal audience finding any thematic reward considering the predisposition to thematic content involving mostly death, destruction, violence, hate, malice, blood, darkness, and sex.* The fact that I'm not a fan overall of female vocalists in this wispy pop-style - there are few exceptions - adds to the discomfort of listening to this album over and over. The vocals (and bass) are also engineered so much to the front of the mix that when vocals are present it covers up the subtlety of all other instruments. This mix is a decisively non-metal mix in this regard. With the vocals and bass so prevalent we are presented with a sound design which fits music in the pop realm rather than in the rock realm.

When you hear noises from the kitchen and inspect the bottom of your trash bin
On the instrumental side of the album, we get commendable performances across the board. As a bassist, Andy Johansson's playing on this record is particularly laudable for the sheer number of styles he's maneuvering through and his driving presence throughout, but we were prepared for the variety aspect of this record and I found the bass parts at times to be overbearing. "The Age of Vulture Culture" - a song that reminded me of "Lady Marmalade" - highlights the heavily syncopated nature of the backing music across the record. Much of the instrumentation, especially the bass, guitar, and horn sections line up with the percussion. Speaking of the horn section, Daniel Hedin on trombone and Martin Isaksson on trumpet get credit for adding the album's most distinctive instruments. The percussive backing, handled by drummer Johan Nordback, is a key element for me which I enjoyed throughout.With all this in mind, I do feel as though this is not meant to be perceived as a "Metal record."

For me, all these combinations of styles, the western, big band, swing, pop, latin, operatic, jazz, and the few if any actual metal elements, can create a war of presence. In "The Age of Vulture Culture," the horns through the chorus, perhaps a fun and unique component for some, sound like the local duck pond in the midst of mating season; there's way too many ducks. I was fascinated by the way in which all these disparate influences come together to yield what essentially sounds like a heavier ska band. One of the most hideous combinations on the record can be explored in "Jigsaw Hustle," where we get the boppy-ness of a disco beat, definitely incorporated to spur much crowd jumping in a live setting, underpinning one of Pacifisticuff's more metallic tracks. It comes across as summoning contradictory sensations in the track. The multiple instrumental breaks are unnecessary for me. There's no need for a track like "Cul-De-Sac Semantics" when the song before ends with a similar degree of force.

Some of the tracks I did enjoy include the subtle haunting instrumental, "Visions of the Purblind," which is an excellent introduction to following track "Lady Clandestine Chainbreaker," which I also enjoyed much of. I felt Kristin's vocals in the track were evocative and inspiring. The chorus is extremely catchy and shows how the horn section can be incorporated in a way that adds to the depth of the tracks instead of diverting attention from it. It's unfortunate that Diablo Swing Orchestra stretched the track out, which I thought didn't fit the song's upfront faster elements. I really was keen on "Interruption" when it's intro began playing, but the dissolution into lounge-influenced verses didn't serve the intensity of the introduction in the long run. The song would have worked it's way into a favorites playlist somewhere if the intensity was maintained until the 'Come spin me around...' transition, which I felt manifested into an inspired culmination to end the song.

Going back to my short review of Licho's Podnoszenie Czarow and my theory of the Katamari Damacy effect in black metal, that effect could also be extended to the avant-garde and progressive realms as well, in which often progressive ideas in structure, phrasing, and meter are often jettisoned in place of surface aesthetics such as genre-mixing, the good-ole "cue the pan flutes" syndrome, or use of other "floating experimentation" measures. Diablo Swing Orchestra is a prime example of this. At any point we are inundated with a range of instrumentation that counterfeits the origin styles and smears the result. In one sense, the experimentation in bands like this are more akin to texture experiments in the noise-realm than music to listen to and digest as traditional songs because the wash of sounds and combinations are impossible to base on previously experienced successful experiments. If we're listening for the "surprise" or the "weirdness" factor of the material overall, much as I expect I'll be doing on something such as the Cum Broth or Shit Huffer tapes sitting next to me, then Diablo Swing Orchestra can be firmly placed in that same category. The textures and overall mixing of elements on Pacifisticuffs, while vapid on a structural level, manage to give off feelings of folly, joviality, and temperance. If that was a goal, then success was achieved.

I think that's why there's a big gap between my experience with Diablo Swing Orchestra's style and a band such as Arcturus. Where the former goes all in with every instrument they can find in the closet, Arcturus, who I think most would objectively classify as avant-garde and experimental, started to slowly incorporate different elements into the material in a way in which listeners were able to grow to understand the usages of the different elements and the aim of their usage in the composition. Aspera Hiems Symfonia had the symphonic elements strongly incorporated over what I think most would call a fairly average black metal foundation. There were some bursts of experimentation in sound but the overall experience was initially manageable and rewarding after multiple listens. La Masquerade Infernale expanded on the concept, incorporating more elements in a darkly frivolous operatic manner including female vocals, more piano, clean male vocals, and a heavy focus on exploiting transitions to push the tension forward. For those that appreciated the experimentation side of Arcturus' first album, their second album was a gift to the ears. Sham Mirrors added electronics and sci-fi flourishes to the carnival atmosphere, taking the terrestrial and launching an extraterrestrial album. The listener grew with the band as they explored the potential each previous progression unlocked. Diablo Swing Orchestra similarly mix a treasure trove of styles and instrumentation however, to my ears, do not do so in a way that is manageable or digestible.

It's often a go-to claim of fans of these avant-garde / Katamari Damacy categorized groups that those that are critical aren't open minded. The claim of not being "open minded" to music is a argument claimed too often against negative feedback. It's easy, however false, to claim that because someone doesn't like a mangled grouping of styles smashed together in a CERN-like centrifuge, that they are closed minded to different styles. These are red herrings. One can not claim that just because someone does not like a band's output that they are close minded to the different inputs. That would be like claiming that because someone doesn't like tomato sauce they aren't open minded to new foods. This is especially true when an audience has gone through the effort of listening, assessing, and reviewing the material and giving reasoning of why they perceive the material to be tortuous. That activity alone defines an open-minded approach. Open-mindedness is defined by the willingness to explore while close-mindedness is defined by the willingness to ignore. These appeals to one's own emotional response on having a band they like receive negative coverage are predictable and fallacious. Diablo Swing Orchestra are a band which experiment in so many different styles, combinations, and aesthetics in which the origin genres are tempered, folded, and beaten into something in which it is nigh impossible to actually determine whether we enjoy the myriad origin genres and influences.

It's extremely easy to confuse the objective and the subjective in regards to art criticism. In one hand, we want reviews to be objective; the honest and unbiased absorption and interpretation of art. In some sense, art criticism is always objective as there is a definitive plate on the table for us to taste. We can objectively explain the ingredients. In music, these ingredients come in the form of influences and common stylistic tendencies. Yet, how we interpret the art is heavily reliant on aesthetic judgement and sense. Immanuel Kant touched upon this in 1783: "When an appearance is given us, we are still quite free as to how we should judge the matter. The appearance depends upon the sense, but the judgement upon the understanding; and the only question is whether in the determination of the object there is truth or not."** Our judgements are based on our sensory understanding and so long as there can be found truths in that understanding, the judgement can be determined to be true and reasonable.

The result of any objective assessment then results in a subjective opinion which qualitatively expresses one's understandings of art, in this instance an album. It's in this way that an objective review process yields a subjective total viewpoint. A purely objective review would be absolutely meaningless to read. It would tell facts and figures which are already known and explicitly expressed. Reviews could be written as a listing:

Diablo Swing Orchestra - Pacifisticuffs (2017)
- Female Pop Vocals.
- Latin rhythmic influences.
- Occasional Bariton Male Vocals
- Avante-Garde
- Heavy bass presence
- Incorporation of horn instruments.

This manner of review has no value as there is no judgement made. Fans read reviews because they want to read the opinion of someone else, not be told what they already know. They seek to know someone's judgement other than their own. Mostly, I think that artists seek out reviews more than fans of the band. For an artist to read a criticism is to seek out what people feel was not executed to their liking. They don't need to be told the facts; they seek the subjective to improve and prosper. A totally objective review is the difference between paragraph three where I describe Kristin's vocals on Pacifisticuffs and paragraph four where I say how I don't necessarily enjoy them. If I left out the subjective thoughts on the album, then no one would know what my actual feelings were on the record. What purpose would that serve?

I had the bizarre feeling that I had heard these bizarre combinations and parodied superlative re-imaginings of genres. I had: Masato Nakamura's score to Sonic the Hedgehod. Casino Night Zone in particular gives off a very similar vibe. I went back and listened to the entire soundtrack for the game and the comparisons are really interesting. Maybe if Diablo Swing Orchestra composed in 32-bit format, I would have enjoyed the album more. Ultimately, as weird as Diablo Swing Orchestra and their album Pacifisticuffs is, the concept and execution is not unheard of. My feelings are that Pacifisticuffs, and Diablo Swing Orchestra, create music for the purpose of being experimental and weird, catering to an audience that seeks the claim of open-mindedness without having to actually listen to the formative genres they claim to be open-minded to. This is musical acculturation at it's wackiest and wildest. It's trotting into a wild west town on a blue and orange hippopotamus wearing a space-suit and carrying a zucchini and claiming that everyone must take notice at how bad-ass your helmet is. Some people surely enjoy this music, but the reasons for that enjoyment I either don't understand or find difficult to empathize with.

* Meant to play into the stereotypical expectations of what metal fans look for in lyrical content.
** Immanuel Kant "Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics" ex 290.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Black Metal Bass: Part I

I’ve put together eight short clips as a highlight of bass guitar work that I have really enjoyed in black metal. This is also partly a response to a Metal Archives thread a while back asking if bass was even necessary in metal. While many people pointed out how obviously silly the question was, bass is often an unsung hero. This is especially true in black metal, which is so treble heavy.

This is just a quick sampling of a bunch of different songs where I feel that bass was particularly interesting or prominent. Still, no matter what song you are listening to, if you are using $2.00 earbuds you won’t have the best bass response. The selection is about 50/50 traditional/experimental black metal, and I put down some quick thoughts on each clip.

Another nine clips are already picked for Part II, but if people enjoy this and email me some suggestions we could do some more.

1. Darkthrone - Summer of the Diabolical Holocaust

This song is a great example of how bands can use bass to add a ton of character to a straightforward transition, even when the underlying riffs are an exercise in stark minimalism. By having the rest of music temporarily drop out of the mix, Darkthrone uses the bass to introduce a riff that centers around just two notes in a way that is absolutely striking. When the guitars come in afterward and harmonizes with the bass it’s also a clear example of how much space in the mix the bass occupies in the song.

2. Peste Noire - Sale Famine von Valfoutre

In this example, Peste Noire brilliantly uses the bass guitar to introduce a crushingly heavy element to the song’s initial build up. Relying on a simple four part harmony fade-in, the band forces the song to start off with a ridiculous amount of energy by having the bass interpolate notes between the main parts of the melody. This lets the intricate bass work transform what would have been a rather formulaic intro into one of the album’s highlights. Also, you have to love the warm growl on the bass tone here.

3. Lord Belial - Osculum Obscenum

This song has such a classic buildup structure: repeating a melody with a stereo split before having the guitars harmonize (think for example of how Slayer’s “Raining Blood” starts). Lord Belial uses this approach by having a right left split on a single riff before having the guitars harmonize while simultaneously adding in the punchy bass (following the guitars note for note) and the percussion. This song is a great example of how tinyn and thin guitars can sound, even when harmonizing, without support from the bass and drums.

4. Khold - innestengt I Eikekiste

It’s pointless trying to pick just one song from Khold that highlights the bass because it’s so essential to their sound. Khold is unequivocally black metal, and fairly traditional other than taking the bass guitar to the extreme. Aside from sitting high in the mix and having some solo moments, it’s wildly more independent than what most bands have. In our example “innestengt I Eikekiste” we can easily hear Khold’s take on a “walking bass” melody, which diverges from the main riff while sticking to the song’s scale.

5. Leviathan - Crushing the Prolapsed Oviducts of Virtue

While many band’s use the bass guitar only as an accent, this song flips that role by having a layered melody where one guitar provides the harmony and the other guitar plays off of the bass’s melodic line. This song is a great example for how important black metal bass can be because it provides an essential part of the melodic counterpoint. The huge gulf between high and low pitches in the melody makes for an absolutely unforgettable moment on a release that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

6. Stargazer - An Earth Rides Its Endless Carousel

When I first heard this song I felt that Stargazer should be arrested and their bass player tested for performance enhancing drugs. While this example may be only tenuously connected to black metal, Metal Archives lists the band as “Avant-garde Black/Death Metal” and frankly this 2014 release is one of my favorite albums of all time, so it’s getting included. The bass on here is absolutely out of control. For anyone that doubts whether bass guitar can keep up with the technical side of metal, this song should resolve the question permanently.

7. 1349 - Nathacana

1349’s Hellfire took black metal aesthetics and imbued them with death metal’s percussive aggression and intensity. The brief bass introduction to “Nathacana” is a critical part of the album. With Frost on drums, the album’s low end might seem like a crowded field, but this section lets you understand how the bass’s low end connects the razor sharp guitars to the low end of the percussion. While this kind of role is bass 101, this brief moment of separation helps you recognize the bass’s strength on the entire album.

8. Ved Buens Ende - I Sang for the Swans

It might be cheating to use Ved Buens Ende, but “I Sang for the Swans” is the kind of song that makes you question whether it is necessary to have guitar in black metal. While the traditional roles between bass and guitar are flipped, the band uses the moment to focus on the lyrics. Because, hey, it’s not a big deal for VBE to make the bass center stage for the stringed instruments. You could even argue that the vocals also take a second seat and just act as an accent for the bass work on this part of the song. The entire album is a clear example of how powerful a bass player can be in black metal.

9. Ellorsith - Susurration

This may seem like an odd choice to demonstrate bass at first. But, listen to how it takes up a huge amount of the overall sound and nearly overpowers the guitars while also simultaneously enhancing the oppressive atmosphere. With black metal, the wall of sound effect is frequently critical to establishing presence, and Ellorsith allows the bass to take on a lot of the weight of this role while relegating the guitars to relatively subservient, but nonetheless compelling, melodic flavoring. This approach works extremely well with how deep the band’s vocals are.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Blattaria - S/T

Wow, one of my all time favorites! This album is so ridiculously good that I can’t bear to explain the basic details without gushing over it. Blattaria’s self titled release is the solo project’s first full-length. This much compositional talent all in a single musician, Manuel Garcia who is also credited with all of the instruments and vocals, just seems unfair. It’s freakish, especially considering this is the project’s first full-length and it was only preceded by a demo. Summing up the sound, this is the culmination of a variety of interesting developments in black metal that have happened after the second wave sound fully coalesced. The chaos of bands like Gnaw Their Tongues, the musty atmosphere of House of First Light bands like Vorde, the dissonance of Deathspell Omega, and the unrepentantly savage melodicism of Naas Alcameth (of Nightbringer fame) - Blattaria expertly and coherently incorporates the best parts of each of these styles, and often all at the same time.

The name Blattaria, referring to cockroaches, is beyond appropriate for the music’s filthy vibe and dizzying pacing. Reverb and delay effects on the clean guitar melodies make the notes seem to skitter over one another, and the left field high-pitched tremolo-picked notes have an insectoid screeching quality. For example, the quick transition at 2:50 on “Dimension” couldn’t be anything other than a fever induced hallucination of roach swarms writhing their way under a moldy refrigerator. However, unlike so many “chaotic” contemporaries, Blattaria knows when to pull back, and countless creepily slow moody parts are integral to each song and help to highlight the intensity elsewhere. Transitions from one stunning riff to the next have such seamless energy that the thrilling songs, and even the entire album, become a page turning narrative. While you could, in theory, boil the music down to switching between quiet and loud parts, doing so would be like suggesting you don’t need spaces between words.

One counterintuitive part of the music is that despite all of the noise, chaos, and cockroach feces, this release is superbly mixed and mastered (by Mare Cognitum’s Jacob Buczarski.) The strong stereo split on the effects adds a ton to the depth to the music. The mixing’s effect on the melodies is even more striking. Take for example the representative stretch of music starting around 1:30 into “Amongst Filth, Amongst Decay” where the centered bass rumbles along before being joined by a dissonant meandering melody entering from stage right. Next, a bewilderingly high melody joins strongly from the left before the guitars meld back together. Every single part the mix comes through crystal clear and without sacrificing an ounce of the vile and ferocious vibe.

Even the drawn out and distant vocals add an excellent layer to the mix, and they appear as nasally incarnations of Attila Csihar or as extended shouts. The vocals are more of a texture, used like a synth-pad on a keyboard might be. Each gurgling note is so distant in the mix and slow in comparison to the often frantic pacing elsewhere. The unique texture is also a critical part of how the album feels so coherent. You know every last song couldn’t be from any other band, even though the actual repetition or recycling of ideas and riffs is extremely minimal. Compare the earlier example from “Amongst Filth...” to the bit starting around 1:40 into “Dweller of the Night.” This second example is brilliantly drummed with punchy rhythmic choices, and the incredible riffs don’t repeat anything from “Amongst Filth...” Still, you can draw obvious parallels in how the high melody plays against both the rhythm section and an additional guitar riff to create climactic tension. It’s just one clear example of how the album’s structure is absolutely beautiful (in a fluorescently lit roach carapace kind of way.)

It almost makes you wish there was some filler in here, or even a song that was only “just” really good. Some sports have a mercy rule to put a stop to overwhelming dominance, right? Plus, I can only get so amped up; but at the same time the 42-ish minute run-time is just perfect. Once it’s over, everything seems somewhat dull in comparison, like you are going through withdrawals. Only a handful of albums have ever risen to this level or have this kind of effect; and although I had this reaction to the album immediately, an additional month and change of listening has only reinforced my opinion. While Blattaria isn’t the first band to use a lot of the elements on this album, everyone knows that first to market doesn’t necessary translate to quality. This lodestar album has merged a wide variety of black metal’s novel fringe styles and thrust them to the next level.